Is that one word or two?

You can never know for sure unless you look it up, but there are some general rules for when you should keep words separate and when you should put them together.

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Lately I’ve been having trouble with compound words, such as timeframe, payoff, and placeholder.

Are these one word or two? After 10-plus years as a professional writer and editor, shouldn’t I know the rules for compound words by now? Why am I still asking myself these questions?

As it turns out, the rules for compound words aren’t straightforward. (Or is that straight forward?)

“Compound words generally develop over time through use. As people continue to use two or more previously unrelated words together, the combination gains acceptance. Unfortunately, this progression doesn’t follow a consistent, regular pattern. Word experts can’t even agree on rules for compound words,” says the website plainlanguage.gov.

This is why style guides differ on whether compound words such as health care and website are one word or two. The only way to be certain is to look it up in the dictionary (though dictionaries differ on some terms), but you can also follow these guidelines:

Compound nouns are usually written as one word.

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